The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation provided opportunities for people to educate themselves and reflect on the impacts of the residential school system in the Cochrane area and across the country.
At the Stoney Nakoda First Nation reserve, about 200 people walked three kilometres down Highway 1A from the McDougall Memorial United Church to the Morley United Church in a show of support for residential school survivors and their families.
Stoney Nakoda member Jennice Clarke, an organizer of the walk, said she felt compelled to put the event on to honour her mother, a residential school survivor, and for everyone else affected by the residential school system.
“We just want the world to know how we feel about today and about the residential schools,” she said. “I hope we can build a stronger bridge with the surrounding areas — Cochrane, Canmore, wherever. It hits very deep, especially to the survivors and us as children of the survivors. It does cycle its way back to us.”
Stoney Nakoda First Nation Elder Koko Powderface, said that she is the fourth generation in her family to have been put through a residential school.
“Both my parents, my grandmother and my great grandfather, they were part of it,” she said. “To get back to where we were and how we were is going to be hard. But my grandmother used to tell me ‘you were born into this language, you learn the language.’ But I lost my language at a very young age. So, it’s just a struggle for me to learn my language.”
An outpouring of stories came from survivors and their families at the sites of both Churches, which carry a dark history of abuse toward Indigenous children.
The McDougall Church was once a day school and orphanage for Indigenous children run by the Methodist Missionary Society. It went up in flames in a suspected arson in 2017. The McDougall Stoney Mission Society received a grant from the provincial government to reconstruct the building, much to the disdain of many Stoney Nakoda First Nation members.
The United Church of Canada previously managed the Morley Indian Residential School, where the Morley Community School now stands, behind the still-standing Morley United Church.
Lenny Wesley of Stoney Nakoda First Nation said he still has a scar on his back from a severe beating he took after he and his childhood friend had violated a rule at the residential school in Morley. He said they were caught in a dorm room at a time when they were not supposed to be there, which led to a wrongful interrogation where they were accused of stealing food.
In another instance, Wesley and a different friend tried to make an escape by dropping themselves down into a shaft and finding an exit from the north side of the building.
“By this time, I guess they knew we escaped. I started running toward that hillside that has the Aspen leaves,” Wesley said, pointing to the location behind him. “They set some hound dogs on me.”
Wesley said he was able to lose the tracking dogs after crossing a small nearby spring and climbing a tree.
“I ran around until I didn’t know where I was going, but I survived out there,” he said. “I never saw my friend again when I escaped, I don’t know what happened to him. I was seven years old.”
Despite the hardships he endured at the hands of the residential school staff, Wesley said he holds no grudges.
“If you hold that grudge, if you don’t forgive, that can turn into a sickness later on in life,” he said.
The residential school could not take away his innate tracking abilities, Wesley said, a feat he takes great pride in.
“I still have my cultural knowledge," he said. "I’m a tracker. I know that park rangers are highly qualified people, but let me tell you, they don’t come near as what I know of these trails.”
In Cochrane, equity and inclusions committee Indigenous advisor for the Town Gloria Snow was part of a Truth and Reconciliation booth set up at The Social Spot for several hours in the afternoon. She said hundreds of people came by the booth to listen and learn.
A walk was led from there at 4 p.m. by Snow’s husband Ken Levi and nephew Kyle Snow who were drumming and singing their way through Historic Downtown. The walk met its end at Centennial Plaza where ‘The Chicken Lady’ statue was adorning an orange shirt.
For Snow, Truth and Reconciliation starts with acknowledging and acting on the 94 Calls to Actions laid out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Marking Sept. 30 as a statutory holiday is only scratching the surface, she said.
“The elders, the Indigenous people that have worked tirelessly on this have given us the blueprint for what these calls to action could mean for industry, health, education, for a whole myriad of things that affects Indigenous people across the spectrum,” she said. “It’s a matter of us working together with Canadians, with government, with all the levels to ensure that our voices, our survivors and our intentions are being heard.”
At a recent town council meeting Snow presented councillors with an offering of sweetgrass before a report from administration revealed that the Indigenous community reprted there is a Cochrane’s lack of representation on Town facilities.
“There’s about 1,000 of us here [in Cochrane], Stoney Nakoda and otherwise whose needs must be addressed,” Snow said. “Having a support staff, an Indigenous person who understands and knows the cultural legacy, historical facts, reconciliation and how to help in terms of what Indigenous people need. I think that’s a greater sounding board for that.”
Over 5,000 people from the Stoney Nakoda Nation call Morley home, about 30 kilometres west of Cochrane.
Snow said she hopes that council will now create the terms of reference and a memorandum of understanding to work with the Indigenous people in and around Cochrane.
“Every agency can have reconciliation as part of its mandate, enacting calls to actions as a mandate for a municipality, for an education board, wherever it’s needed.”